Disrupting American priorities in Guatemala paid off for John Lee – sometimes

This article is part of our special report Medical Tourism. When America’s cold weather led to travel warnings, an entrepreneur saw an opportunity. He would drive his pickup truck halfway across the country, sell…

Disrupting American priorities in Guatemala paid off for John Lee – sometimes

This article is part of our special report Medical Tourism.

When America’s cold weather led to travel warnings, an entrepreneur saw an opportunity. He would drive his pickup truck halfway across the country, sell T-shirts reading “Come Home” at the border, and earn a small fortune.

This ambitious plan did not turn out to be so easy, however. Soon after Tim Burns took flight, Haiti was gripped by political unrest, causing a new year of harsh economic hardship in the impoverished nation. The situation was not helped by John E Lee, the American who was to lead a US subsidiary of International Express.

“After one month’s failure in Haiti, we decided we had to jump the next plane to Hawaii,” Lee said in his first depositions, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Although his firing does not appear to have been related to Haiti, it did contain a clear piece of the puzzle that would be integral to Lee’s eventual conviction on conspiracy charges, a result of what is known as the Pandemic Economic Response (PARS) case.

The book An Economic Whodunit, published in January, tells the story of Lee’s activities from early 1990, when he came to Panama, to his suspension in 2003. In the first lawsuit, his firing, Lee says he was fired on grounds of misconduct that had nothing to do with Haiti. In fact, he says, he had spent most of the night before he was fired playing golf, but the subsequent allegations against him for misconduct in Panama precipitated the ensuing ban on work in his department, and when he returned to US soil and eventually resigned, he had become a national celebrity.

Paul Hammes, who had been the US assistant secretary of commerce at the time, told the FBI that Lee was one of the “rare public figures who posed such a threat to the president.” Lee denies that President George H W Bush sought to shut him down, but the extent of his subpoena power was decisive.

The book recounts how the CDC director, Atlanta-based Dr Robert Sullivan, under whose orders Lee was later suspended, had ordered him to seize control of the Spanish quarantine tent, bringing it with him to Guatemala. Lee’s reasoning for taking charge, according to law enforcement sources, was that the WHO was sending only an American manager, Bernard Callender, and he thought it was better to have a manager in charge who actually knew the protocol. After Sullivan’s successor, Kevin Fleischmann, refused to send Callender, he said Lee told him he had been told by the federal government, under the direction of the CDC director, that “if he did not sign the contract, then the contract would go to war”.

According to Sullivan’s deposition testimony in the case, he decided not to send Callender to Guatemala because the WHO “was not competent” to run the facility. Lee, however, was wary of employing Callender, because he did not “have that great a knowledge of what was happening in the medical response”. He told his adviser to think of a name for the company to take over.

What was to become Jarvis Point, named after a Native American tribe with the same name as the island where the clinic was to be located, was hastily designed and constructed, and ultimately ran aground over contract negotiations. The 1995 shutdown cost the health department more than $60m, with unemployment reaching 30%, according to government records. After Lee was indicted, his company rebranded itself, changed its name, and won the WTC contract again, albeit under less intense public scrutiny. Lee, his parents, and his chief counsel, Bill Gibbs, all pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charges and were sentenced to between six and 17 months in prison. In 2015, the government decided not to ask a jury to convict Lee of responsibility for the deaths and injuries caused by the WHO contract, citing that the health department was “incomprehensiblely negligent” in the contract negotiations. At that point, however, under pressure from those who had prosecuted Lee and from lawmakers who still had questions to answer, the department discontinued the contract.

Because of the years-long nature of the case, not all answers have been revealed. One thing is clear, however, that Lee now acts as a consultant to international humanitarian organisations, touring the Caribbean, negotiating door-to-door in Panama, and meeting with foreign officials.

This article is part of our special report Medical Tourism.

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